- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 23, 2009

So the Wizards are set to resume the 2007 season. That is when they were last whole. That is when they defeated the Pistons twice in a four-day span in late January and ascended to the top spot in the Eastern Conference. That is when defeating the Pistons on the road indicated a shift in power.

Flip Saunders was on the sideline with the Pistons then, and Eddie Jordan was en route to becoming the coach of the Eastern Conference All-Stars.

It all fell apart right then because of injuries, and the Wizards have been wondering ever since then what might have been. Was that their moment? Was that their window? Is that time forever gone, overtaken by the changing dynamics of the conference and the aging process?

That is what this season will determine.

Ernie Grunfeld has elected to stay with the trio of Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison, betting that they have a championship push in them.

He has put solid pieces around them. He has hired Saunders and his postseason portfolio. He has held steady while the upper echelon of the conference has improved significantly in the form of the Cavaliers, Celtics and Magic.

Saunders is thinking 50 wins. Brendan Haywood is thinking the Wizards are no worse than the fourth-best team in the conference going into the season. The team’s long-suffering supporters are thinking that this is it, the put-up-or-shut-up season.

No more angst. No more wallowing in injuries. No more talk of being young.

The latter is hardly accurate anyway. Jamison is 33, Butler and Haywood 29.

If the Wizards are unable to make a deep push in the playoffs this season, then it is never going to happen with this group. Then this group will be eternally stuck in 2007, when, for a fleeting period, anything seemed possible.

This is the burden before the Wizards.

A 41-41 season and a one-and-done playoff series just won’t suffice.

Too much emotion has been spent on this group. Too much disappointment has come to this group.

Saunders recognizes the all-or-nothing challenge before the Wizards. He eschews the customary talking points, if only momentarily, and feeds the expectations.

“I don’t think there is any reason why we shouldn’t be able to compete with the elite teams,” Saunders said Tuesday.

That comes with the caveat of the Wizards staying in good health and Arenas reprising his old self.

“I’ve never had the weapons that I have with this team,” Saunders said.

That observation comes from a coach who has been to four conference finals and guided stalwarts such as Kevin Garnett and Chauncey Billups.

Saunders does not see much duplication in the players, in one player who is essentially a copy of another player. This gives him more buttons to push.

He has been pushing the buttons of the players all summer, starting with Nick Young and Andray Blatche.

He wants Young to learn to move without the ball in the manner of Richard Hamilton and Reggie Miller, to run off screens and be ready to catch and shoot. He wants Blatche to learn what it means to be a professional, the responsibility of it all.

He has been buoyed by both.

You are urged to be circumspect with Blatche, who has made a habit of enthralling the coaching staff each summer, only to lose his way in the regular season.

“If this team is healthy, it’s a dangerous team,” Saunders said.

It is a team that also can be a danger to itself on defense.

That concern remains unchanged.

“Well, my teams always have been in the top defensively,” Saunders said.

It helped to have a Garnett or a Ben Wallace in the fold.

No such player exists with the Wizards.

That might be construed as dampening the good feelings of the Wizards.

As they see it, they are finally ready to see what they can be after two-plus years of unyielding frustration.

• Tom Knott can be reached at tknott@washingtontimes.com.

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